Algae with a secret surprise fought deadly pneumonia

Fangyu Zhang and Zhengxing Li

The miracles of modern medicine strike again: Scientists have managed to generate a modified version of algae capable of carrying small capsules filled with antibiotics into the body of mice to fight deadly lung infections. The results help raise hopes that a similar therapy could one day cure critically ill human patients suffering from the same type of bacterial infection.

The key to this work lies in drug-releasing nanoparticles, which are tens to tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a single hair. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego found that their nanoparticle-infused algae could fight pneumonia infections in mice and allow them to survive for several weeks after treatment, in stark contrast to untreated mice that died within three days. The team’s work was published Thursday in materials from nature.

The effectiveness of antibiotics is ironically limited by the body’s own metabolism and immune system. When we take pills by mouth or receive antibiotics through an IV, these medications are on a journey to get where they need to go. They must cross numerous barriers and membranes, all while evading detection by patrolling cells. The UCSD researchers wanted to use nanoparticles to give antibiotics a shortcut to the site of infection. Its size, along with a coating to mimic a type of immune cell, would mean safe passage for the drugs hidden inside.

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“With an intravenous injection, sometimes only a very small fraction of antibiotics make it to the lungs,” study co-author and UCSD pharmaceutical researcher Victor Nizet said in a news release. This is why very sick patients will die of pneumonia, even with antibiotic treatment. This nanoparticle therapy, Nizet said, has the potential to kill off these deadly bacteria and save patients’ lives.

The researchers’ nanoparticles can’t move on their own; they need help traveling through the body, as well as avoiding being captured by the body’s immune system. So the scientists embedded the tiny drug-filled capsules in a kind of single-celled green algae and released the swimmers into the windpipes of 12 mice infected with Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a nasty bacterial pneumonia. The algae managed to evade capture by immune cells called macrophages by swimming away and instead heading for infection sites, and avoiding being engulfed by macrophages as independent nanoparticles would.

The 12 mice that received the combination of algae and nanoparticles remained alive after 30 days, while the untreated mice died within three days. And to begin with, this new method outperformed intravenous treatment of the same antibiotic given at the same concentration; an intravenous dose of 3,000 times more antibiotics was needed to produce the same effects.

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Furthermore, the researchers found that the nanoparticles and the algae had no harmful effects on the cells of the mice and were degraded after releasing the antibiotics. “There is nothing toxic left,” study co-author and UCSD nanoengineering researcher Joseph Wang said in the news release.

Scientists are currently conducting more research on how the algae and nanoparticle duos interact with the immune systems of organisms. Eventually, they hope to turn the therapy into a life-saving treatment for ICU patients. That is, if people can stomach the thought of injecting tiny algae into their lungs.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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